By Bob Westal | October 24, 2002

Carl Jung published “Modern Man in Search of a Soul” in 1933. 68 years later, modern man is still looking. To fill the void left by our materialistic society some of us go to churches, synagogues, or mosques. But for a lot of us, the Big Three religions create more problems than they solve. “Modern Tribalism” is an intelligent, grueling, gorgeous and, yes, fun look at some alternate routes to spirituality and community.
Produced and Directed by Mimi George and Rick Kent, “Modern Tribalism” covers enough ground for three perfectly good documentaries. The first segment is mainly devoted to the “modern primitives” movement, mostly through the work of body-piercing guru Fakir Musafar. This one time advertising executive has explored the most extreme bodily “transformations” imaginable, including turning his torso into a dagger holder by cutting knife-sized slits through each of his breasts. (At last, a way to seriously freak out Crocodile Dundee!) He’s a real-live mystic who believes that pain, blood and bodily “transformations” are a vital path to quasi-magical powers and spiritual enlightenment.
Along with the philosophy, we many see sharp, pointy things being inserted into places they don’t belong. You’ve got your cheek piercings (yeoow!), your guys held aloft via a series of rings inserted in their back (a la Vincent D’Onofrio in “The Cell”), and a gay youth bending over to receive a piercing in an especially sensitive part of his nether regions that I didn’t even know had a name.
After this cinematic basic training, it’s time for a fun and sun with the zany folks of the Burning Man festival, held each Labor Day week in Nevada. The late summer heat is so agonizing it would make Fakir Musafar wince, but everyone seems to be having a good old time. We see some serious shaministic-type rights, but mostly we are treated to topless bicyclists, a real wedding ceremony conducted by a naked female minister covered in speckles and blue body paint, and an overall sense of goofy unreality in the face of harsh circumstances. And there’s the Burning Man himself… An angular, modernistic wooden structure adorned with neon lighting that burns as part of a stunning ceremony to cap off the celebration. As this film constantly reminds us, there’s something about our fascination with watching fire that stirs us in the most basic way. Mystics have known it for centuries. Beavis and Butthead know it too.
After all that ritual, about the last place we might expect to end up is at a family event sponsored by a New Mexico Kiwanis chapter. Nevertheless, our next stop is the annual burning of Zozobra, a local bogeyman — sort of cross between the Joker and Howdy Doody. The mood is anything but sinister as an crowd composed of all ages and ethnicities cheers the ceremonial destruction of a papermâché symbol of evil and bad tidings. It may be a manifestation of primitive urges, but it’s also the ultimate in old-time family fun.
The message seems to be that community and bliss is where you find it. I tend to agree, but I can’t help having second thoughts. What is the difference between the Burning Man and a burning cross? Just where is the line between “community” and “hateful mob”?
These are questions I’ll have to leave for an essay even more longwinded that this review. Suffice it to say, “Modern Tribalism” is a first-rate undertaking throughout. We get pithy commentary by author Tom Robbins (“Even Cowgirls Get the Blues”), “Burning Man” founder Larry Harvey (who takes some time to throw a little cold water on the legends surrounding the first “Burning Man”), and affable West African medicine man Malidoma Some. We also get bold and consistently memorable visuals, shot brilliantly on video by cinematographer Scott Jones, and a compelling and appropriately unearthly/creepy sound design by Kenny Klimak.
By not stinting on the sensual nature of their film, Mimi George and Rick Kent reminds us that the separation between a bunch of cavemen sitting around a bonfire and a bunch of people staring at a movie screen isn’t all that great.

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